Leadership is changing, that much is certain. The transformation began a long time ago and it is still charging on. But where is it headed? Will leaders even exist in the future? Our answer: Absolutely! (Depending on how you define leadership, that is). So what will leadership look like in the future?
There are many reasons for the transformation. Technological and social developments have caused changes in market conditions and requirements. In addition, employers’ expectations of employees have changed.
Most experts agree that no organization will be able to continue to maintain the status quo. So what should leadership look like in order for it to be effective in future?
When one doesn’t know what to do, taking a look at companies that are behaving “differently” can be quite seductive. What successes have they recorded? What pitfalls remain hidden? We’ve been socialized to avoid mistakes at all costs. So we imitate the winners and over-achievers. We want to know what they do. What steps they took. We ask ourselves how we can apply those lessons to our organizations.
Damned to perfection
The unspoken assumption is that the pioneers are one step ahead and your own organization is lagging behind. But the concept or method that another organization has developed is like a tailor-made pair of shoes. They only offer stability, comfort and structure to the feet they were manufactured for. They are torture to everyone else who tries to wear them.
If you look at the history of organizational development and management consulting you will see that many companies have been put in that exact situation. The suggestion is: if you just apply your role model’s methods conscientiously you will be just as successful as your competitor. So we pull ourselves together, make adjustments with the ultimate goal of perfecting their method.
When the method becomes madness
“A fool with a tool is still a fool,” as Grady Booch¹, an American informatics pioneer put it in the 80s when talking about digital tools. Maybe the fool won’t simply remain a fool, perhaps he will become a dangerous clown if he is given a tool. Just think of an axe or a chain saw and you’ll soon have visions of destruction and severed limbs. Stephen King kind of stuff. New ideas still get introduced to organizations that could shake the entire company.
That’s called change!
It’s understandable that staff members don’t like that term, it can even set off panic. So how should you react?
The BER airport and other catastrophes
Typically people look at what requirements exist today and then look for a solution from there. But that isn’t much help. Our perspective needs to be broader. We need ask ourselves: What requirements present themselves in the future? Large projects like the BER airport testify to this fact. We already know that the planned airport will not able to handle the expected passenger numbers. But this lapse in judgement will also have consequences on a smaller scale. The IT infrastructure will need to be rethought even as the company is continually growing. No-one will be surprised when the computers are too slow, or they crash or when it emerges just a few months after the new system is implemented that the server is overburdened. Costs will probably be cited as the reason. As a forward looking observer one has to ask oneself which costs are the most debilitating? The mid-term costs or the real costs for the entire organization? True entrepreneurial greatness always manifests itself in a diversity of perspectives on the organization and the anticipation of the consequences of strategic decisions.
Speaking of anticipation, let’s take a look at the future!
What will the future look like?
Okay, so no-one really knows what the future holds. But it’s still worth it to take a look into a crystal ball to get an outline of what the world will be like in 5-10 years. In the future everything is connected. Your fridge orders milk automatically as soon as you begin to run low. Self-driving cars take you to clients and your entertainment program knows exactly what you want to watch according to pre-defined algorithms. All of that is already technically possible. In other words, right now we are just waiting for the rollout.
But what effect will digitization have on our culture and our work?
Maximizing needs satisfaction
As a consumer I am used to getting products and services tailored to my needs. I get things when I want, where I want and how I want. At the same time my possibilities are almost limitless. In other words, I have unlimited possibilities for maximizing my own needs satisfaction. At the same time consumers are mindful of the fact that everything leaves a footprint, an ecological footprint.
That has an impact on how employees seek to play a role in structuring their work. The desire for individual arrangements will continue to grow. The desire for flexible and individual solutions will be felt in the working environment. Many companies have already started talking about life-phase oriented human resources management. This policy will probably develop into a “life situation” oriented perspective. That means the individual’s medium term life situation will be reflected in their work. That will not only result in work that is constantly changing but it will also lead to an increase in positions or roles that an employee will take on in the course of their career.
Business as a big box of lego
At the same time the market’s requirements will require cooperation among experts, both internally and externally. Temporary teams with employed staff will be replaced by freelancers or by project partners from other organizations. The interaction between companies with the aim of developing and selling new products and services will increase significantly. The situation is comparable to a big box of colorful lego blocks that are continually joined together to create new forms and which do not hold their present forms for very long.
Just as with lego, the connecting blocks should remain intact. They make it possible for the different blocks, figures and elements to join together, regardless of their color, size and form.
What will the future of leadership look like?
How do we make sure that the connector pieces are compatible with each other? That’s exactly what we need leadership for. Two questions are important in this regard:
- How does the team operate effectively?
- How do I become effective as a leader?
Let’s start out by taking a look at the factors that determine the success of team work.
Successful teams require a goal-oriented interaction among members whose focus is on creating value. It is important that roles are clarified first and that the guidelines for the cooperation are binding for everyone. Generally both the roles and the guideless are determined by the implicit agreements and principles that were arrived at beforehand. That means they arise unconsciously and are part of the corporate and team culture. The implicit rules are affected by the team members’ beliefs as well as the organization.
Tracking Star Trek
Conflicts are inevitable in a situation where roles are constantly changing and in which there is cooperation among external partners. Different values and rule systems tend to clash. The greater the time pressure on the project the more important it is for storming and norming phases² to be coupled with explicit cooperation rules as well as regular times of reflection. Just as with Star Trek the future will not only require universal translators for the different languages and cultures, but also overarching directives³ that express a unified values system. More on that later.
Confidence + responsibility = effectiveness
In order for team building to be successful everyone must believe that their own contribution, whether it be for the value creation process or for the team building situation, is valuable and that it is honored by other team members. Effectiveness requires confidence. A confidence in one’s own strengths, weaknesses and abilities. The confidence should develop independent of a particular event and it should come from reflecting on results. If you recognize your contribution you can develop it and continue to develop it. That only occurs when everyone takes responsibility for their own actions and thinking. The more common practice is still to blame others for one’s own failure and for untapped potential. This requires a lot of development – among employees as well as leaders.
“We the people!” or “Of corporate democracy”
Back to the universal translator and values system: if teams keep changing in their structure and in mandate, an effect will be felt in the work in the entire organization. Every team has a unique relationship with other teams and the entire organization. The Swiss software provider Hauf-Umanits, solves this problem through an operating system for the organization. It gets developed continually by the staff and every improvement is accepted or rejected by way of a vote. Haufe-Umanits has committed itself to democratic principles. You might be thinking: “Typical of the Swiss!” They love to vote on all kinds of laws and initiatives. But let’s be honest: employees vote every day. Not necessarily with a ballot box, but through their actions. Decisions by leaders that are not accepted are ignored or carried out half-heartedly. If employees want to do something themselves that they know will be rejected, they sidestep defined decision-making paths or withhold information. “He wouldn’t understand anyway,” people think about their boss. In the worst case scenario the employee will resign and the company will lose experts to the competition.
The way in which people work together and make decisions in the company is subject to rules, most of which are implicit. Yes, the discussions and debates around the company’s own operating system leads to conflicts but it also deflates burgeoning crises through united commitment and conscious pledges of allegiance to the rules of cooperation.
From being a doer to becoming an enabler
What is the role of leaders? What is left for them to do? What should their contribution be?
The change that leadership is going through is the shift from being a “doer” to becoming a “enabler”. That means leaders do not create facts, they create space in which passion, ideas and solutions can flourish, as do the people involved. In order for this to happen leaders must commit to service. As a leader it is my task to respond to positive and negative effects felt in the process of value creation. It is every leader’s task to make solutions transparent, to set up discussions and to create solutions. Leadership is a continual development processes of tasks, processes and people. As a result leadership becomes more complex and geared towards individuals. That means everyone won’t be treated equally, but everyone will get what they need.
On the field or up in the stands
This paradigm shift does not just elevate leadership over challenges. Unions also need to change their position and redefine their role. Otherwise they will be shunted from the field onto the stands because the staff will not be able to understand why their supposed representative gives equality preference over individual solutions.
“To be or not to be? That is the question!”
But back to the leader. When do teams accept leadership? What skills should a leader have?
Leadership can only make a positive contribution if the leader has buy in from the team. That’s not just true of the future, it applies now. In the future employees will communicate this openly and will hold the leadership accountable. That does not require a vote, although it could be helpful.
What creates buy-in? Every team has a fine sense for whether or not the leader is moving the team forward or not. That means moderating your team, being a sparring partner midwife for idea development and creating a space in which problems can be solved. That works best when leaders are authentic, i.e. when they take on their roles and refuse to dissolve into their roles.
There is not much else to say. Except for two more things:
- Participation and cooperation give companies the ability to shape their future if they succeed in developing the staff’s potential.
- This will require leadership in the future. Leaders might not be called “leaders” anymore and they may just take on roles for pre-determined time periods, but leadership as a service will continue to exist in the future.
We look forward to this new kind of leadership and cooperation. How about you?
The world is colorful and complex. If you would like to discover your organization’s potential with Nadine Nobile and Sven Franke, we recommend CO:X at http://nadine-nobile.jimdo.com/ (German only).
 Wikipiedia, accessed on 18.08.2016, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grady_Booch
 Wikipedia: accessed on 18.08.2016, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teambildung
 Federation directives: accessed on 18.08.2016 http://www.startrekguide.de/index.php?direktivesternenflotte